Ancient Traditions of Polynesian Navigation

Ancient Traditions of Polynesian Navigation

Ancient Traditions of Polynesian Navigation

The Pacific Ocean, with its 180 million square kilometers (70 million square miles), covers a greater surface than the five terrestrial continents combined, which in total hold only 150 million square kilometers (58 million square miles). Fifty million square kilometers (19 million square miles), almost 30% of Moana Nui a Kiva (Pacific Ocean), make up the Polynesian triangle where the points are the islands of Hawaii, New Zealand and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), all of which were colonized by Polynesian farmers, originally from Samoa, between the years 900 and 1000 A.D.
How did they do it?  How could they face these long voyages?  The investigator Edmundo Edwards, in his book “When the Universe was an Island”, describes the traditional Polynesian canoes as small, light and fragile, without ballast, but balanced by the action of one or two floating outriggers, located on one or both sides of the hull. For long voyages of exploration or commerce or as warships that required more speed, stability and carrying capacity,  they used double canoes connected by beams and tied together with ropes of coconut fiber. These catamarans were outfitted with sails, oars and stone anchors. In 1774, Captain Cook related in his diary that he saw a Tahitian war fleet which was preparing to invade the island of Mo’orea carrying 7,760 warriors embarked on 160 catamarans and accompanied by 170 outrigger canoes with their supplies.
[bsa_pro_ad_space id=3]

Map of the Stars

Stellar Compass

The Polynesians went to sea in their catamarans for weeks, or even months. With favorable winds, they could sail between 150 and 250 kilometers (95 and 155 miles) in a day at a velocity between 9 and 11 km/hr (5.5 and 7 mph). They had no maps, sextants or compasses, but they did make their own nautical charts with a web of wooden sticks marked with shells and they built their own mental astral compass, due to their great capacities of observation.
After many years in an apprenticeship, navigators would have memorized the path of each important star. They divided the horizon into 16 (Tahitian) or 32 (Hawaiian) equal segments, taking as their cardinal points those stars or constellations of greatest magnitude which would appear or occult in relation to a 360° horizon to be able to plot their route.  Directions north and south are geographic and indicate the axis on which the stars rotate through the sky. Every star rises in a determinate direction in the east and travels across the sky during the night to finally set in the west. The point at which a star rises or sets can be used to mark a direction that is parallel to the equator. If a star rises in the east at 20° north of the equator, it will set in the west at 20° north of the equator.
There are also beacon stars which maintain their movements aligned with east, west and north during the day.  One of the most observed is Polaris, where its stationary angle from the horizon in the northern hemisphere is almost equal to the latitude of the observer; that is to say, if Polaris appears at 10° over the horizon, the observer is at a latitude of 10° North.  The Southern Cross, by pointing to the south celestial pole, serves a similar function once Polaris disappears as the observer moves farther into the Southern Hemisphere. The well-known movements of the sun and the moon also served to maintain the catamaran on course.       

Winds, Waves and Clouds

The Polynesians navigated basically from the east to the west, against the winds and the marine currents. They would carefully observe the wind, whether it came from the stern or the side, from the quadrant or against. From that they could configure a map of the winds. The ocean swells and whether they came from the bow, the side or the stern were also important information. 

[bsa_pro_ad_space id=2]
Over the course of a day, the navigators would locate themselves by the movement of the swells, especially when the sun, the moon or the stars were not visible. With this information, they were able to maintain course.  Another of their most utilized sources was the rebounding reflection of the waves from an island that was beyond the horizon. This phenomenon can be perceived at distances between 100 and 160 Km (60 and 100 miles). According to traditions, they used a wooden triangle (Tapa Toru) that showed the 24 ways that waves can indicate the distance to the nearest island.
Bow and stern of the old Maori canoe, similar to that of Cook Island canoes. Doubtless Bay, North Island, New Zealand, c.13th-14th century.

Sea Birds, Whales and Dolphins

All that floats, swims or flies can also be an important indicator. As a rule, sea birds will leave their nests at dawn to begin their search for food, but they always return to dry land. Since birds tend to fly in a concentric circle, but different species have different radii, it’s possible to determine the distance to an island by recognizing the type of bird being observed.  For some tribes in New Zealand, whales and dolphins were indicators of the great marine currents. Whales hunt and feed in the turbulent waters where powerful currents meet and fight each other, so to spot whales was an omen of serious danger.  Dolphins were appreciated because they tend to appear in more tranquil waters and stable currents

The old traditional knowledge of navigation was carefully guarded by the families of the navigators and passed from generation to generation, until it began to die out around 1500 A.D., not much later than the colonization of New Zealand. The Polynesians were skilled navigators, adventurers and inherent nomads. They trusted their abilities and their resistance to find the land which called to them beyond the sunrise.

[bsa_pro_ad_space id=1]

Related Reports:

The true story of the palms of Anakena

The true story of the palms of Anakena

In the month of February of 1960, my family and I arrived on the Chilean naval transport AKA “Pinto” to take the position of Governor of Easter Island. During my excursions to get to know the Island, I arrived at the beach of Anakena, which I must recognize, at that time, was a sandy desert with a shepherd’s hut on the southeastern side surrounded by a bit of green and some bushes which made it look like an oasis.

CREMATION IN RAPA NUI

CREMATION IN RAPA NUI

CREMATION IN RAPA NUIby Cristian Moreno Pakarati - Historiador / HistorianCremation is a funerary or post-funerary ritual which allows a cadaver to be disposed of cleanly. The practice dates back at least 20 thousand years among the Australian aborigines and was also...

Ana Hue Neru

Ana Hue Neru

Ana Hue NeruThe Caverns to whiten the YoungLas Cavernas para blanquear a Jóvenes As far back as the late 19th Century, various expeditions have attempted to unravel the mysteries of the Rapanui culture through archaeological research and the oral traditions of the...

About The Author

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *